When they left the US senior team after the 2016 Olympics, Austin Hack and Meghan Musnicki were both fairly certain they had just competed internationally for the last time.
By then, Caryn Davies had been out of the game for a full four years. She retired from international competition in 2012, after capping a three-year Olympic run in the women's eight that included a silver medal in 2004 followed by consecutive gold medals in Beijing and London.
Each of the three had different - but similar - reasons for leaving the national team, all involving wanting to pursue other goals. For Hack, it was working and finding a career. For Musnicki it was about needing to find out what life was like - what she was like - without rowing.
For Davies - well, she had plans that had been in the works since winning her first gold medal in 2008, like finishing law school at Columbia University, and then starting a career.
In their time away, all three found ways to stay fit enough that an attempt to return to competition would not be an unreasonable goal. Eventually, the pull of being part of a team, part of a group working towards common goals and accomplishments, and the joy they each find in competing drew them back in.
This week at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria, all three will begin another drive to row in an Olympic Games, to be part of the US team when they begin competition in Tokyo, 2020.
Women's eight with Meghan Musnicki rowing in three-seat
They are among 28 crews that will represent the US in their respective boat classes, all racing in the hopes of reaching the medal stand when finals begin Friday. For the 14 Olympic class crews, and four Paralympic crews, the stakes are even higher.
This week of racing will be the primary setup for what will come next year for the athletes hoping to row in the 2020 Olympics; a high enough finish this week will determine whether their event qualifies for a direct entry for Tokyo, bypassing the final qualifying rounds next year.
That quest for Davies will start Sunday morning in the first day of heats in the week-long regatta. And even after having rowed in three Olympic Games, Davies was feeling nervous.
It is not the idea that she is back in international competition that was making her nervous, nor did it have to do with being an older veteran on what is mostly a young team of women, many of who have not yet rowed in a regatta as important as the World Championships in an Olympic cycle, let alone an Olympics.
Being nervous is just all part of being fully involved, fully committed to the goal she is collectively a part of again.
"Nervous? Of course. If we weren't nervous then we shouldn't be here," she said. "And I'm more nervous for the heat than the final, because it is such an unknown. But I think if you don't get nervous, then you don't care. And at that point, that's when you know you are done."
But Davies is not done, and neither are Hack nor Musnicki. They love what they do. They love being part of a team. They enjoy the work required, and they are happy to be back.
"I always just really loved rowing, and I really love the people," Davies said. "When I found rowing in high school, I felt like I found a community. I was like, this is where I'm meant to be, and what I'm meant to do."
In pre-regatta interviews, each of them talked about the decision to return, and their paths back to the Olympic pursuit. Here is what they had to say.
Hack training for the 2016 Olympics
For Hack, the Rio Olympic cycle ended in disappointment. After winning a bronze medal in the 2013 World Championships in the men's eight, Hack remained in the eight as it struggled to regain a medal position at the finish in any of the next two World Championships, including the 2015 qualifier.
Hack stroked the crew to a win in the subsequent final Olympic Qualifier in Lucerne, Switzerland, the next spring. But that high was tempered by their fourth-place Rio Olympic finish.
"Coming in fourth was disappointing," Hack said. "It was definitely part of the rationale for coming back. I wanted to do better. I wanted to come back for another round to try and do better than that."
But that was not on Hack's mind when he decided he was done. Putting the start of a career or family life on hold is all part of joining the US team right out of college, and Hack was sure that he had no intention to come back.
"When I finished rowing after Rio, I wanted to work. I had never had a real job, so that was something I wanted to do. Most of my friends lived in San Francisco, and I just wanted to move there and live a normal life for a while.
"I took a couple of months off, and then started working in San Francisco without intending to come back to the team," he said.
Hack went to work in a management consulting firm, but staying in shape while working seemed like a good idea, so he managed to find time most days to get to the gym, or go for a run.
Still, in the back of his mind, Hack had not completely let go.
"I just had this itch, something in my subconscious kept me from getting fat," he said. "So even when I was working, I was still working out. It was not that hard. I was still going for a run every day, or going to the gym, or doing something for an hour every day."
His thoughts began to turn more toward a comeback after Mike Teti left his job as the Cal men's head coach to return to coaching the US men's sweep team. When Teti came back, he had the men's team training center moved to Oakland, and encouraged the athletes training there to find jobs and pursue careers while still training.
Hack stayed out of the mix, but kept his eye on the training center and started working harder during his training.
"I think subconsciously I never let go of the idea that I should stay somewhat in shape. And then I gradually just started training harder, and then started having conversations with Mike about coming back to the team, so I think that's kind of the short version," he said.
Working and training without making a full commitment worked for Hack and it eventually drew him back in. This spring, Hack rejoined the training center and began training there. But he still held his job.
After being selected to the men's eight for this World Championship, Hack left his job and is committed to training full-time through at least the remainder of this cycle. He is now with the men's team in Linz.
Musnicki during practice Saturday
Musnicki, like Hack, left the US team after Rio, but it was under different circumstances. Musnicki had a successful run on the women's team that included two Olympic gold medals. Still she wanted to see what life was like without rowing, and said she also did not think she would be coming back.
"I don't think I did initially," she said. "I knew that I needed a break from it from a mental perspective, and also from personal perspective. I needed to figure out who I was outside of rowing. It was nice I was away for two and half years so it was a good break."
Musnicki not only stayed in shape, she made it her work, opening a business as personal training coach. She also stayed in touch with her former teammates, rowing in a few events, including the San Diego Crew Classic. The weekend she raced the Crew Classic, she visited the women's team at the team winter training site near in Chula Vista, California, just south of San Diego.
That was when the thoughts of coming back began.
"I think it was in was 2018, and I was out in the launch with (assistant women's coach Laurel Korholz) and I was watching practice," she said. "I had been missing it for a while, but I had told myself that I had to have at least a year and a half away from it to make sure that I had given myself enough space to explore other things. I told Laurel I really missed it, and that was kind of the spark."
"It's not an easy decision," she said. "It's not easy to come back after two and a half years. It's just not easy. You have to come back with the knowledge that you are going to be in a different role, potentially, and that it's not going to be easy. If you come back you have to earn your seat with what you bring to the table every day."
Musnicki during the 2012 Olympics on the line in the heat
"And it's hard physiologically. It takes longer to recover. I am almost 15 years older than the youngest girl in the boat."
Musnicki returned to the women's group in Princeton and raced again international for the first time since Rio this spring at World Cup I, in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She was chosen to row again in the eight from selection camp and is now fully committed to another Olympic run.
"It's a little different, but it's also a lot the same," she said. "It's the same goals, the same drive, the same end game, just with different personal and personalities and team dynamic. That's been the fun part, learning to be part of a new team.
"Every two years, every three years, every four years, there's turnover in the training center, and the personality of the team changes, and so learning to be part of that again has been fun. I feel like I am learning a lot from them, which is the goal. To learn a lot.
"I can't wait to race," she said. "At World Cup I this year, I was racing the pair, and it was my first international race back and in our heat I couldn't stop smiling all the way down the course because I was thinking, I love this, this is what I love, racing and competing against other countries with my teammates.
"You can't replicate that in the quote-unquote real world. That feeling is unlike any other. It's a feeling that you cannot replicate."
Davies stroking the four in training Saturday
By the time Davies left the US women's training center, she had already won three Olympic medals in the women's eight, including a silver and two gold. She had also finished two years of law school at Columbia University.
She said there was no thought process to her decision. There was another year of law school to finish, and she had plans to get to.
"There wasn't much of a thought process," she said. "I didn't have to decide. I just sort of knew that I was doing other things. There wasn't a point where I questioned should I retire, or should I keep going. There just wasn't a question."
In the time away, Davies has been anything but sitting still. She finished school, clerked on the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Honolulu, where she joined an outrigger canoeing team, and won the state championship.
She went to graduate school to earn an MBA at Oxford University, and while there she stroked the women's boat to a victory in the Boat Race in the first year that the women rowed on the same course as the men.
Then she moved to Boston, went to work in corporate law, and joined the Union Boat Club, where she rowed in a single most days. Davies joined the masters group there and participated in the team's winter workouts, and she stayed fit.
Davies said that returning to rowing was not in her plans, even though she missed the feeling of being on a team, one of the reasons she joined the outrigger team, and the masters group at Union.
"I missed having teammates," she said. "That was the best part about being part of a paddling club, having teammates like that again. At work, they would talk about deal teams and having teammates, but it just wasn't the same. And I rowed with other masters rowers, but it didn't quite rise to having teammates that you train with every day."
Davies at the 2012 Olympics
Davies said she thought about coming back in 2017 when FISA officially added the women's four back into the Olympic program. It was a boat she wanted to race in, but it was just a passing thought, she said.
Like Musnicki, Davies stayed in touch with her former teammates, and during the winter of 2018, Musnicki visited Davies in Boston. So, they rowed a 2k test on the erg. The scores were competitive enough for Davies to think again about coming back.
"I pulled a pretty good 2k, and I think that was one more tick on the side of yea, I can do this."
Just for kicks, Davies and Musnicki took a selfie and sent a text to head women's coach Tom Terhaar. "We sent the text with a picture of the scores and the message, 'Tokyo 2020 2-?'
"We were totally joking," she said. "It was funny because Tom took like five days to answer that text, and I was thinking did I say something wrong? Turns out it hadn't gone through properly, so he had no idea what I was talking about. He did get it, he just didn't get the photo.
"All he got was the text without the selfie of me and Meghan. He said 'good erg score.' I said thank you."
Davies eventually started thinking harder about making a return and trying for another Olympics and increased the amount of time she rowed in her single, and she became a familiar sight on the Charles River. She was attracting questions from people who wanted to know if she was thinking about coming back, and people who wanted to encourage her.
She recalls a morning when Harvard head coach Charlie Butt spotted her and called out, "Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should. You love rowing, and rowing loves you."
Moving closer to her decision, Davies called Korholz to check.
"Even before I made the decision for sure, I called Laurel and said if I wanted to try and make the team again, would you welcome me back, and what do I have to do to get invited back? She told me I had to pull eight thousand meters for a 30-minute test, rate capped at 22. That's a 1:52.5 split. That's hard, but doable."
So, she pulled it.
Davies again put herself back into the program and made her way to Princeton to rejoin the training center group. Today, she is stroking the four and enjoying her return.
Davies training in the women's four Saturday
"It doesn't feel that different. I actively have to stop and remind myself to enjoy it because you can get really get caught up in the competition and trying to row your best every day. In that way it's great, but it doesn't feel any different. It's almost like I never left."
Davies is clearly one of the most decorated and most experienced women in the training center, but she said she did not walk back in expecting to be treated differently. In fact, she said she was probably more intimidated by the group of women than she thought they were of her.
"I think some people were maybe intimidated by me, and actually to be honest, the feeling was mutual. I showed up and there were a lot of really fast women, and I felt like I needed to keep my mouth shut and earn my place.
"It's been a slow integration, and people were very welcoming, but I don't want to tell anybody what to do because they clearly already know what to do.
"There is nothing worse than having a teammate who feels entitled. I don't want to be that teammate. Every race is a new race, and no one deserves to win any more, or deserves to be on the team any more, than anyone else. You've got to earn your place every year."
That doesn't mean that Davies doesn't have something to say. She does, but, she said, "it's more for the broader, wider world." And she is happy that people are interested in her return, and want to talk with her about it.
"I'm just really happy that people are interested," she said. "I felt for a long time that I have something to say, something to share, and I was never very good at making myself heard. So, the fact that people come to me and ask about what I'm doing is really helpful and makes me feel very valued.
"I think the biggest message I want to share is to remind people to have fun, to remind people that whatever you are doing, the most important thing to do is to find joy in what you're doing."
The root of her message can be found in the Olympic charter, she said.
"Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles," she said quoting the passage.
"What really speaks to me is the part, the joy found in effort."